UK Researchers Develop First “Self-Dyeing” Plastic-Free Vegan Leather from Bacteria

Imperial College London researchers have developed, using bacteria, a plastic-free, vegan leather that dyes itself black during production.

Scientists and material companies have been using microbes to produce sustainable textiles or dyes for the fashion industry; however, the researchers claim this is the first time a material produces its own color pigment. One of fashion’s most environmentally damaging processes is dyeing with synthetic chemicals. The researchers explain that black dyes — especially those used for tanning leather — are particularly harmful. 

“Inventing a new, faster way to produce sustainable, self-dyed leather alternatives is a major achievement for synthetic biology”

To solve this environmental problem, the researchers genetically engineered the bacterium Komagataeibacter rhaeticus to simultaneously produce microbial cellulose and the dark pigment eumelanin. Their new process has been published in the journal Nature Biotechnology

A wallet made from self-dyeing bacterial leather
© Imperial College London

“Inventing a new, faster way to produce sustainable, self-dyed leather alternatives is a major achievement for synthetic biology and sustainable fashion,” senior author Tom Ellis from Imperial College London’s Department of Bioengineering commented.

The authors worked closely with Modern Synthesis, a London-based materials company specializing in microbial nanocellulose textiles, to craft the bacterial cellulose material into shoe and wallet prototypes.

According to scientists, the products made from bacterial leather mark an exciting advancement in environmentally friendly fashion. The process eliminates the need for synthetic chemical dyes and reduces the carbon emissions, water usage, and land use associated with traditional leather production.

“Bacterial cellulose is vegan by nature. Unlike plastic-based leather alternatives, bacterial cellulose can be produced without chemicals derived from petroleum and is broken down in the environment safely and biologically into non-toxic products,” adds Ellis.

A close up of the self-dyed bacterial leather.
© Ed Tritton – Imperial College London

Endless possibilities ahead

The biologists are now exploring using different pigments to expand the range of colors that material-growing microbes can produce. They say the possibilities for creating unique, sustainable textiles are endless.

The project has received £2 million in funding from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, part of UK Research and Innovation, to develop further engineering biology and bacterial cellulose solutions for the fashion industry. 

The team has announced plans to work closely with the fashion industry to implement greener production practices and create a more sustainable approach to clothing manufacturing.

Co-author Dr Kenneth Walker emphasized the importance of collaboration between scientists and designers in innovating new materials for sustainable fashion. He shared: “Our technique works at large enough scales to create real-life products, as shown by our prototypes. From here, we can consider aesthetics as well as alternative shapes, patterns, textiles, and colours.”

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